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Which Came First: the Team or the Culture?

When interviewing potential new hires for my team, “culture” is a term that comes up quite often. Candidates (particularly younger candidates and Millennials) are very interested in a team’s culture and its impact on the work environment. And for HR and hiring managers, finding someone who is a good “cultural fit” is one of the most important yet difficult-to-define objectives in the hiring process.

How does your team’s culture look? How do you define it? And how do you know if someone is a good cultural fit for your team and your organization as a whole?

These questions got me thinking about a unique problem. I know that my team has a distinct culture, a personality of its own that distinguishes it from the other departments within PGi. And I know from experience that not everyone is a good fit for that culture, and that the friction created by a lack of cultural compatibility can often be too much for someone to overcome.

But which came first? Did the team grow a culture of its own over time, or is establishing the culture a necessary first step to creating the team?

Does the team beget the culture or does the culture beget the team?

Defining Culture

Let’s back up for a moment and take a look at what we mean by “team culture.” While there will always be a bit of team “je ne sais quois,” in many ways a team’s culture is defined by how it interacts and works both within itself and with other departments across an organization. The way your team communicates, collaborates, brainstorms, even laughs—all of these interactions will come to define both how your team performs and how it is perceived within the organization at large.

The key word here is “interacts.” Remember that when you’re putting a team together, you’re creating work relationships that will grow, change and be tested on a daily basis. If there are incompatibilities in the way team members interact with one another and they’re unable or unwilling to adapt to each other’s workstyles, those incompatibilities will ultimately be exposed by the nature of the team dynamic and could potentially break the group apart.

So…Which Comes First?

If we want to play the chicken and the egg game, the first possibility is that the team must exist first and the culture emerges over time. In this scenario, your parameters for creating a team are much more pragmatic: what is the team’s goal, what skillsets does the team need, etc. Don’t get me wrong, these are always important components to the process, but in this hypothetical example, they’re the only components you have to work with. It conjures images of the gritty police drama where a special detail is assembled from different departments and the personality clashes ensue immediately.

On the other hand, you may decide you want to try to define your culture before assembling your team. You have a concrete idea for the team environment you want to create, and you’re confident you can find the right people to bring that environment to life. However, the primary peril here is that you end up unnecessarily forcing team members into an unbendable cultural mold that you’ve created, narrowing your talent pool and leaving yourself with no room for growth and change.

In Reality, It’s About Flexibility

Reality, as it tends to be, is a little more nuanced. Your team and its culture are so indelibly linked to one another that one can’t exist independently. If you’re creating a new team, you need at least loose ideas for both, but with an attitude of flexibility; an absolute rockstar candidate shouldn’t be overlooked if they’re not a 100% perfect cultural fit, nor should a perfect cultural fit’s lack of experience be completely ignored.

Certain things can (and should) remain unwavering, like your team’s ultimate goals or mission statement. But even entire organizations evolve their culture over time as they learn more about how people work most productively and what yields the best results. You should approach team creation, building and nurturing in the same way: with an open mind and the ability to pivot and adapt your strategies and processes.

Remember, regardless of where you want to start, you can’t all-knowingly define what’s best from the beginning. Your team is a dynamic thing made up of dynamic individuals. Adaptability is the key to drawing the best out of your team, both culturally and professionally.

To learn more about creating, nurturing and finding success with your work team, download our latest free eBook “Teamwork Makes the Dream Work.”

About Sean O'Brien

Sean O’Brien is PGi’s Chief Administrative Officer. He oversees the company’s Legal, HR and Program Management organizations and manages Corporate Development, M&A and Acquisition Integration. In addition, Mr. O’Brien leads Corporate Strategy, Executive Communications and Global Facilities Management.

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